What a wonderful surprise it was that the Navy Midshipmen won their first game of the year against the one AAC team they hadn’t previously defeated since joining their conference: the UCF Knights.
Navy pulled off a massive upset, and it did so in highly improbable fashion, coming back from a 13-point deficit and notching a 17-0 fourth quarter. Navy did this against Gus Malzahn, a man who has twice coached in a BCS National Championship Game; won an SEC championship; and beaten Nick Saban three different times as a head coach. If Navy figured to get a first win of 2021, it certainly didn’t seem likely that UCF was going to be the opponent.
Now Navy turns around from the UCF game and plays another three-letter school which will be hard to beat. The SMU Mustangs have become a force under coach Sonny Dykes. They regularly play great offense and just need their defense to be decent, not spectacular, in order to win games. That formula has worked well for the Ponies so far this season. They are unbeaten and intent on facing the unbeaten Cincinnati Bearcats in a possible battle for the Group of Five championship. Can Navy spoil SMU’s plans after its magical comeback against UCF? Are we seeing the revival of Navy football after a brutal start to the season in September? Let’s look at what the Midshipmen can do in this game:
1 – Tai Lavatai
Beyond the win itself, the other especially encouraging part of the UCF victory was the emergence of a true answer at quarterback. Tai Lavatai became the guy for Ken Niumatalolo, if there was any doubt from previous weeks. Navy needed to find a solution at football’s most important position, and it seems to have figured out this specific piece of the puzzle. Getting Lavatai off to a good start is essential to a Navy win. The Midshipmen can’t expect to come back from a 13-point deficit in two straight games. That is unsustainable in and of itself; what is also relevant is that SMU is a better team than UCF. It would be great if Lavatai can hit a downfield pass and gain confidence in the passing game, which would then enable Navy – as it so often has when the offense is clicking – to put the opposing defense off balance and set the table for everything it wants to do on offense.
2 – Bread and butter
How can Navy beat the SMU offense? By keeping it off the field. Navy has the game plan and the playing style needed to keep SMU off the field. It’s just a matter of executing the plays and coming through in the fourth and 1 or third and 2 situations which will be central to this game’s outcome.
3 – If it’s close, do the most
If SMU plays its best game on offense, Navy won’t stop the Mustangs. If SMU executes with ruthless precision, this game is probably out of Navy’s grasp. However, if there is any pass which is within arm’s reach, any fumble which can possibly be recovered, any ballcarrier who can be tackled at the first point of contact instead of getting extra yards, Navy defenders need to make those kinds of plays. SMU might cleanly beat Navy on some snaps, but on any play where it’s a 50-50 battle between success and failure, Navy needs to win a majority of those defensive plays, especially the ones which can produce takeaways and third- or fourth-down stops.